My 2016 in Film: The 1980s

The 1980s are my decade. Which feels odd to say, given I was born in the late 90s. Politically, the period is interesting, juxtaposing commerce and capitalism and giving rise to neoliberalism (see: every Adam Curtis film ever), alongside nuclear paranoia and the legacies of Thatcherism and Reaganism. Comic books became darker, bringing interesting and meditative new takes to superheroes through V for Vendetta (1982-88), The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Watchmen (1986-7), Batman: Year One (1987) and The Sandman (1989-96). Music became what Donnie Darko (2001) would go on to celebrate. Meanwhile, the decade was populated with directors like Joe Dante, Oliver Stone and Walter Hill.

This list will never be complete: by my count, I watched 40 films from the decade over the course of the year. There’s simply too many to devote enough space to Blow Out (1981), The Last Starfighter (1984) or From Beyond (1986). But hopefully this will give a good overview of a decade whose cinema was populated by a diverse set of worlds.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982), dir. Lou Adler

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains feels like how a model for how a Jem and the Holograms (2015) movie should be done. Rather than a surface level message around embracing individual identity and a modernised narrative of the social media popstar, the Fabulous Stains tells a story of teenage musicians from a genuine place, implicating the role of the media in promoting artists (and demonising its young followers) and its effects on the artists themselves. Where the punk aesthetic saw youth disenfranchisement and nuclear obliteration in Repo Man (1984), here we see how a cult emerges around an artist. Through the mantra of “never put out”, it grounds itself within the punk ideology of not selling out – but how tenable is that position? Incorporating faux news footage, Fabulous Stains settles more for ambivalence than anything else.

Lou Adler’s name may seem familiar – Adler has spent his entire career producing musical artists and launching Cheech & Chong as known artists. Adler knows the industry, so is able to use that experience to build an authentic narrative.

This type of empowering, feminist film feels particularly 80s; in The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), the commercialised, media cult of personality is again called into question, as Billie tries to defend herself against her rapist. In Brian K. Vaughan’s comic series Paper Girls (2016-present), the suburban young teenage narratives of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and more recently Stranger Things (2016) is subverted, applying those same coming-of-age struggles to female protagonists.

Starman (1984), dir. John Carpenter

No other decade is as good at science fiction as the 1980s: from the acceptance of mortality in a Floridian retirement home in Cocoon (1985), to the nautical first contact of The Abyss (1989), to the apocalyptic, reality TV visions of The Running Man (1987). I have a soft spot for John Carpenter, and that’s not just because I spent the year blazing through his filmography with Big Trouble in Little China (1986) and Christine (1983), or saw him perform live in ManchesterStarman is far from one of Carpenter’s best efforts, and frequently transcends credibility, yet Starman is such a heartfelt story of a man from another world that it hardly matters.

The Starman’s appearance on Earth is Christ-like, visiting for a handful of days to bring peace until he must return home. Though he may seem creepy as he stalks Jenny and initiates a relationship with her in the form of her dead husband Scott, his only malice emerges from outside influences: government operatives, or a fight in the bar. In some ways, Starman is a road movie, as the Starman must travel from Wisconsin to Arizona in Jenny’s car before time runs out. Though Starman will never reach the cult appreciation levelled towards Escape from New York (1981) or They Live (1988), it still carries a special place in Carpenter’s filmography. Hopefully, with Indicator releasing ChristineVampires (1998) and Ghosts of Mars (2001) from Sony’s catalogue on Blu-ray, we’ll be able to see a UK release of this very soon.

Blue Velvet (1986), dir. David Lynch

I’m unable to deal with the fact it took me five years to lose my David Lynch virginity. Back in 2011, when my friend Zach was introducing me to the Criterion Collection and other incredible films, I never thought to pick up the David Lynch DVD boxset I was eyeing up. I’ve still not watched Eraserhead (1977) or Mulholland Drive (2001), whilst I’ve still yet to complete my journey through Twin Peaks (1990-91) that I began in June amongst every other film or TV series, like Class (2016) or Black Mirror (2011-present) that is on my radar.

Rarely do I give a film 5 stars, unable to determine whether something is truly perfect, or the difference between 4.5 and 5. Yet Blue Velvet is as unquestionably perfect as a Stanley Kubrick film. Lynch stared into the frame and created a film with a true vision. As with the musical sequences within Twin Peaks, music takes on a performative female identity. Within the noir genre, aided by the presence of Kyle MacLachlan, Lynch creates a gripping portrait of sexual power, dominance, masculinity and femininity, with shades of some of his later works.

Miracle Mile (1988), dir. Steve De Jarnatt

Miracle Mile opens in a nighttime coffee shop in Los Angeles; it ends in a helicopter. Over the course of the film, Harry tries to outrun the inevitable, moving between the Mutual Life Benefit Building and gymnasiums, rescuing family in the process. Miracle Mile‘s nihilistic approach to the end of the world seems to have shades of how the Death Star’s power is treated in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Yet it fits with an entire genre of 1980s cinematic nuclear apocalypses, from The Day After (1983), Threads (1984) to When the Wind Blows (1988).

Yet Miracle Mile embeds lightness within its darkness: Night of the Comet (1984) may have dealt with the death of almost everybody in Los Angeles, but it still had Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Here, we open in a diner defined by caricatures, from drunks to clerks to drag queens; later, we meet body builders, or old women going on dates. Unlike the soul-crushing Threads, the strength of Miracle Mile is how it oscillates between these two tones, only amplifying the power of the desperation of the film’s ending.

For All Mankind (1989), dir. Al Reinert

Brian Eno’s music can help make any film moving and incredible, from Rachel’s struggle with cancer in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) to Todd Haynes‘ portrait of 1970s London in Velvet Goldmine (1998). Here, Eno’s music almost becomes a transcendental experience, as beautifully linked to the visuals as Philip Glass’ was in Koyaanisqatsi (1984). Rather than leave archival footage of the moon landings in a vault, ready to be used in extract form in every TV special or documentary, alongside assorted talking heads of variable value, allows this footage to be played in full, in the best quality available. For All Mankind is one of very few films which can truly attest to being largely filmed in outer space.

Space may be just as inspiring within fictional narratives, but For All Mankind is something special. We never doubt the science, or the dubious CGI, or if this is what a spacecraft is actually like. Yet it still feels like science fiction, never our reality. Though many voices have tried to retell their experiences of the Apollo missions, here their voices become a collective – a collective experiences of multiple missions – told within one story. For All Mankind never reaches the narrative suspense of what one expects from a fiction film or a documentary – but it remains a spectacle, that needs to be seen. Not in some 480p YouTube version – but on the Criterion or MOC Blu-ray. Looking out at the universe, this film deserves to be seen in all its glory.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), dir. Steven Soderbergh

Sex, Lies, and Videotape makes for uncomfortable viewing. But it’s meant to. Often, there’s a recent tendency with films examining the emotional impact of sexuality to rely upon explicit sex scenes, whether simulated or real. Think of recent examples like Shortbus (2006), Nymphomaniac (2013) or Love (2015), even outside of Fifty Shades of Grey (2015). These films seem split in critical opinion: are they porn, or are they art? I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with my own sexuality. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, something I’ve really had to confront over the past year, embracing my asexuality.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape is uncomfortable, yet it is uncomfortable in its characters and scenarios, from Graham’s VHS library to Ann’s actions within the film, instead resorting to confessional style monologues; never does it use sex itself to make the viewer uncomfortable. It is not about the sex act itself – but the impact of it. Videotape carries a universality around its taboo – whether one is poly, ace, mono, straight, queer, everyone has their own relationship to sexuality. Soderbergh deconstructs sexuality – just as he does with masculinity in Magic Mike (2012).

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John Carpenter: Release the Bats Tour

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Ten months ago, I learnt some shocking news: John Carpenter, the director of Escape from New York (1981) and They Live (1988), would be performing his music live. In the UK. I flipped, and booked tickets as soon as I possibly could.

Then he announced he would also be performing at the Warwick Arts Centre two days beforehand, essentially a 40 minute journey from my house.

So currently I’m spending a weekend in an actually not terrible and actually rather friendly hostel in Manchester.

Whenever I try to explain the concert to people, I always get a similar reaction. “Who’s John Carpenter?” Carpenter is the very definition of iconic. I can acknowledge directors like Dziga Vertov for how much they altered the medium of filmmaking, providing breathtaking montages and striking visuals, but there’s something incredibly watchable about Carpenter’s films.

It feels odd to admit as a 19 year old born at the tail end of the 90s that I have this weird obsession with 80s films. Each decade of cinema has its own qualities, but the 80s has something special about it. Maybe it has a reputation for awful fashions, cheesy action movie one-liners, and dumb pop music. But the fashion is fucking amazing. Visual effects ruled thanks to ILM, Phil Tippett, Tom Savini, Rick Baker and many others. The Human League, Eurythmics and Kraftwerk became the masters of synth. The X-Men moved to Australia.

But then the 80s also gave us neoliberalism, excess consumerism and Donald Trump.

Tracing the roots of this infatuation is difficult. Maybe it starts as being an apologist for 80s Doctor Who from the age of 10. When I first properly got into film in 2011, I started with the masters: Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Kubrick. But around the same time, I also had friends introducing me to Carpenter’s contemporaries, like Walter Hill, and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.

By the mid-90s, synth seemed to be disappearing from the music landscape. Big budget blockbusters seemed to rely instead on emotional, heartwrenching orchestras, or pop music soundtracks cobbled together from whichever artists who work for their record label. James Horner went from Commando (1985) to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

Recently, in an interview with Little White Lies, Carpenter stated of his use of synth:

I started using synthesisers out of necessity, because it was the cheapest thing available to me at the time.

But recently, synth seems to have undergone a reappraisal. In the wake of Tarantino/Rodriguez’s Grindhouse (2007), throwback films like The House of the Devil (2009), Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) and Turbo Kid (2015) have embraced the style of the past.

Synth is a versatile medium: it does not purely represent disco or the worst of 80s cheese. It can represent technology, the unsettling, the unnatural, and the thriller. Often it can be a framework for innovating something different: The Social Network (2010), It Follows (2014) and The Neon Demon (2016) use this aesthetic to explore something new. But it seems to be undergoing somewhat of a renaissance within the music industry too, thanks to synthpop artists like M83, CHVRCHES, Years and Years, Troye Sivan. Synth is not dead.

In 2015, five years after his last directorial effort (2010’s The Ward), Carpenter debuted his album Lost Themes, alongside his son Cody and his godson Daniel Davies. Now, he’s touring the US and Europe as a badass rockstar, alongside Cody, Davies and John Konesky and John Spiker from Jack Black’s Tenacious D. Yes, Tenacious D. This seems like the best career move for Carpenter; all artists must find a new avenue, as David Lynch has with his artwork.

Getting to the venue was a stressful experience. It had been a stressful day: relying on Google Maps to find a quicker route to the train station was an awful decision on my part, and the Virgin Train was so packed that it felt as if another #Traingate was inevitable. Then there was the stress of accidentally buying a single tram ticket when the return was 20p more.

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The venue was originally to be held at the Manchester Albert Hall, but over the course of the year, the original ticket vendors folded; the venue was moved to a recently converted, modern arts venue, the Victoria Warehouse, a 20 minute tram from the city centre. As I walked down to the venue, legions of other people dressed in football shirts walked in the opposite direction.

Maybe I’m glad I got to the venue early: it felt like a little community of 20-somethings and 40-somethings, girlfriends dragged along, all brought together by the same thing. But there must always be something to occupy the mind in queues. When the ambulance pulled up at the venue, I started to get worried. Has there been a massive accident between a technician and a loose wire? Has Carpenter had a heart attack? Has Carpenter suddenly died, ready to join Roddy Piper in the sky? I stressed out for half an hour, until the paramedics and the ambulance wheeled away to a nearby parking space, probably waiting on hold until the first person ends up with a shard of glass in their eye, or is in desperate need of having their stomach pumped.

Buying overpriced merchandise before the show had even started, I began to wonder whether I had learnt anything at all from They Live. But I tried to be restrained: people walked into the venue carrying signed vinyl albums, t-shirts from The Thing (1982) and Escape from New York, lithographs and more. But it just seems too much – unlike my trip to the Troye Sivan concert last year, I wasn’t that guy spending £70 in one go. So instead I walked into the venue carrying a poster and a plastic (!) bottle of beer.

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-15-47-36The venue seems to have received a wide amount of flack on social media, with numerous ticket holders complaining about being unable to see anything, or hear much at all either. A few days later, the Facebook page was completely down.

Personally, I have no real issues to report. That isn’t everybody’s experience, which is fair. Standing next to the Joker and Michael Myers near the stage, I was at a good vantage point. The warehouse was vast, stretching back to crowds far back. Moving two different shows into one was never going to work perfectly. But it feels almost appropriate – sitting in the Albert Hall would feel too formal, too operatic – unlike the sheer rebellious fun of Carpenter’s films, fighting against and within the Hollywood film industry. Instead, it feels like an underground show of decades ago.

Carpenter was having sheer fun, elevated from film director to a 68 year old rockstar. Chewing tobacco through every song; moving his eyes along to the audience (“I see you”, his hands gestured); dancing along like some cute old granddad; putting his sunglasses on through the They Live section.

Maybe instrumentals aren’t the most exciting part of live performance – there’s a framework, but no sense of the deviation and chaos of performing lyrics to a live audience. Visuals were provided in the form of clips from Carpenter’s films, vignetted by a Chinatown border for Big Trouble in Little China (1986); window blinds for Halloween (1978); a mirror image for some of his other films. But Carpenter never fully took on the rockstar persona. There was no sense of talking to the audience, or describing his experience of working on his films. Simple words, simple phrases, talking about being a master of horror; warning everybody to be safe and look out for Christine when they drive home tonight.

There was no sense of looking forward, but looking back. Carpenter performed a handful of songs from Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, but it didn’t feel like enough – instead, it just became a film retrospective. Even my favourite song from the album, Night, felt more gripping in its music video.

Looking bad isn’t a bad thing – but Carpenter was clearly following the iconic image of himself. There was no time for Kurt Russell in Elvis (1979), or Ice Cube and Jason Statham in Ghosts of Mars (2001), or even the scary children in Village of the Damned (1995). There was no sense of challenging his less than successful efforts.

It kind of made me question how much of a Carpenter fan I even am. I’ve seen his main ones – Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live. I even watched Starman (1984) earlier this year. But I’ve not seen Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), or Christine (1983), or Prince of Darkness (1987). Maybe I can hope HMV gets copies of Christine in as soon as possible, or that Arrow Video can get the rights to Scream Factory’s release of The Thing, or for Studiocanal to lose control of their mishandling of The Fog (1980). Many of his films, I’ve only seen once. But that’s not what’s important – I still love him as a director.

After the concert and everybody flooded out through the fire escapes, hordes of people lined up outside, dressed in Halloween costumes. Through the crowds lined the Snake Plisskens and the John Nadas. Through the fans, I wandered back to my tram, so packed that I almost found myself jammed against the window. It almost felt like the violent subway of The Warriors (1979). But it had been a good night. Maybe not the greatest Halloween, or even as great as I imagined it – but it was still a lot of fun.

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